We’re living in interesting times. But is it, as Paul McCartney sang, getting better all the time? Or is it a case, as a laconic John Lennon responded, that it “couldn’t get no worse”? That’s what Paul D Miller, aka DJ SPOOKY, sets out to answer in GETTING BETTER?, a multi-disciplinary commission which is part of the wide-ranging Sgt. Pepper @ 50 celebrations that run throughout June. Working in collaboration with multimedia artists The Holladay Brothers, as well as guest artists from Liverpool, Miller will infuse technology to create a dynamic response. We caught up with him ahead of the event.
I read an article at the end of 2015 that declared that it had been ‘The Best Year In History For The Average Human Being’, despite so many atrocities and global upheaval and wealth inequality – and that was before Brexit and Trump. So, Getting Better? By what measures are you going to be looking at investigating that question?
There’s always a gap between how we use numbers to describe the world around us, and the way we live in the everyday reality of our surroundings. You, me, everyone is living in a world of numbers – my cellphone, laptop, etc. are tools of enlightenment but also surveillance and conforming to whatever software I use. Things on average are ‘better’, but, worldwide, there are movements towards authoritarian regimes and people are deeply fearful of their place in life. I guess it’s that uncertainty that makes our time so weird: we have information, tools, data analytics – all these things we can choose to use. But we don’t. Then you get Trump, Brexit etc. because people don’t care about information – they care about emotions.
Are you an optimist or pessimist?
I’m an optimist – but, in the long run, our species, this planet, this solar system, this galaxy, this universe, they will all be gone. We are just a speck of dust floating in an ever-expanding universe. Most people wouldn’t know about that, or even care. According to most studies I’ve seen, pretty much everything is finite. Look up the Wiki page for ‘Extinction’ and you get this: ‘More than 99% of all species, amounting to over five billion species, that ever lived on Earth are estimated to be extinct. Estimates on the number of Earth’s current species range from 10 million to 14 million, of which about 1.2 million have been documented and over 86% have not yet been described.’ In that context, everything we do needs to be even more important than ever. We live on an incredible planet – let’s act like it and live with intensity and search for things that make this gift we have even more powerful.
For the event on 5th June, you’ll be re-working a lot of Beatles classic songs, including Getting Better. Have you always been a fan? Have you learnt anything more about them with working closely with the subject matter?
I was more of a Hendrix and Pink Floyd kind of person when I was a kid. But what’s powerful about this situation is that it’s about building bridges between generations – and that’s what’s more important than ever: we live in polarised times where people from different generations have totally different views of reality. I’ve always been a fan of the political views of John Lennon and his support for progressive politics. This is my way of paying homage to how musicians can reach into the fabric of society and say, ‘another reality is possible’. Another world is possible.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was an album that the Beatles did in order to get away from being so serious about themselves (they also created aliases for themselves to poke a bit of fun). Do you think that this element of distance is something that all artists can use to tackle quite big issues that occasionally hit close to home?
Every DJ understands that! The first thing people do is usually make up a nickname and go from there. The way the Beatles touched so many people – I respect that, but it probably also became a burden. The reason Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band is so important is that it was the first album to combine art, rock, conceptual approaches to studio engineering and high fidelity. There were other artists like Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, and, of course, the Rolling Stones that were just as impressive, but somehow Sgt. Pepper was the one that broke the doors wide open. My other favorite was Hendrix’s Electric Lady Land – but that’s for next year!
Is there going to be a definite answer reached in what you’re doing for Getting Better?
Actually, in the face of the general global mood of despair after the 2016 election of Trump – I still can’t call him President – I think we all need to realise that art and politics MATTER. Elections MATTER. I wish more young people would vote – that’d be a help in getting this all moving along. But if not, then the next step is to look at how we are evolving as a society and make our words and actions line up with what I think most people would think of as ‘getting better’. In the song, John Lennon talks about beating his girlfriend, hating school, and trying to get his life moving into a more positive place. Powerful. I’ve never beaten any women, and I really liked school, so I guess we have different approaches!
The song Getting Better is a see-saw between optimistic feeling and battling with uncomfortable things in Lennon and McCartney’s past. Is this something you’ve noticed yourself in your own work – that good songwriting identifies that emotions rarely exist on their own in a vacuum?
Yeh – every artist and musician is a collage of good and bad. No one is a saint. Even saints were troubled, fucked-up people who probably would be viewed as super weird in our data-driven, social-media-ubiquitous computer world of 2017. I’m just trying to do my part and still be an artist who wants to push the envelope on how music, art and tech can change the world. I guess, yeah, that means getting better. All the time.
Getting Better? takes place as part of the Sgt. Pepper @ 50 celebrations. DJ Spooky performs live at the Philharmonic Music Room on 5th June, preceded by a Q&A with Steve Levine at FACT on 4th June. An accompanying installation at FACT runs between 4th and 16th June.